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Salisbury, The Empire Builder Who Never Was

Andrew Roberts argues that Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister most identified with imperialism at its acme, in reality saw the Empire as a mixed blessing at best.

Lord Salisbury
Lord Salisbury

On Tuesday 22nd June, 1897, the British Empire’s achievements were marked at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the sixtieth anniversary of her accession to the throne. The vast number of street parties, balls, receptions, speeches, unveilings, illuminations and church services constituted the greatest festival of celebration in British peacetime history. Almost fifty thousand troops accompanied the Queen-Empress in the procession from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral. The units chosen, including the Canadian Hussars, Trinidad Light Horse and Cape Mounted Rifles, emphasised the imperial rather than purely national character of the event.

There was much to celebrate. A glance at a globe would show how one-fifth of the world’s land surface was coloured pink, home to nearly one-quarter of the world’s population. At the naval review at Spithead, 21 battleships, 53 cruisers, 30 destroyers and 24 torpedo boats – mile upon mile of beflagged floating confidence – were assembled, just from British home waters alone. Even the French newspaper Le Monde was jealously but favourably comparing Britain’s imperium to that of Rome.

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